Yesterday was the day of Togosupo, a mascot-packed event held on the shopping street on either sides of Togoshi-Kouen station in Tokyo. Sporting events like basketball and soccer were held, culminating in a tug of war match between two teams of mascots. Hosting the festival were local characters Minami-chan, Ryuunoshin, and Togocho. Chief among the dozen other yuru-chara gathered at Togosupo was Togoshi-Ginjiro, the mascot for nearby Togoshi-Ginza.
Japanese mascots often behave in ways that are counter-intuitive. The most common example of this is the mascot who promotes a regional dish in which its own species is the chief ingredient. These barnyard animal mascots have a self-destructive propensity to encourage tourists to munch on their flesh.
This suicidal behaviour contrasts starkly with the mascots’ serene smiles. Each of them is ready at any time to skip blithely into the slaughterhouse. Much the like the creature from Douglas Adams’ “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” that has been genetically engineered to take pride in being eaten, these meaty mascots gleefully await their grisly fate.
They are dedicated to their own demises. Just last month, a pig mascot named Ecoton took an exam at the Fukuoka Fisherman’s Hall, testing his knowledge of the best fish to complement Tonkotsu Ramen, a local dish of noodles in broth made of pork marrow bones.
One of the most prominent of these enthusiastically edible characters is Hokkaido’s sheep mascot, Jingis Khan No Jin-Kun. The moniker comes from Jingis Khan, a barbecued mutton dish popular in the area, itself named after Genghis Khan, who supposedly popularised sheep meat in the region. But Jin-kun embodies none of the fighting spirit of his Mongolian warlord namesake. Despite being a sheep himself, Jin-kun spends his life singing the praises of the mutton delicacy.
Another mascot who shares this precarious existence is Coroton. He is a massive pig who resides in Maebashi, Gunma, a city celebrated for its pork dishes. So bloated that his forelegs barely touch the ground, Coroton is positively spherical, which must surely make him a sitting duck for local butchers. But, far from waddling to the hills, he happily acts as a cheerleader for his town. Coroton has a death wish that makes Charles Bronson seem timorous by comparison.
Although these mascots’ lifestyles seem to defy reason, they are at peace with their destinies. They are sure of their purpose in life, and are ready and willing to meet their maker, and for this, I envy them.
Why am hungry, all of a sudden?
Most Japanese towns and cities have their own, government-approved “gotouchi-chara” mascots, who help promote tourism and liven up local festivals; but renegade, “unofficial” mascots are just as likely to win the public’s favour. The official mascots are usually wholesome and squeaky-clean, so they tend to be upstaged at events by their unsanctioned counterparts, with their garish designs, and anarchic, outlandish behaviour. Typically, an unofficial mascot does not put forward an image of their hometown that the local government wants to project. But, much to the chagrin of local politicians, the unapproved mascots often turn out to be more successful than the approved ones.
Funassyi vs. Funaemon
Everyone’s favourite hyperactive pear, Funassyi, was conceived by a resident of Funabashi, Chiba, as a potential mascot for the city. But when its creator offered Funassyi to the town, they turned him away. Instead, a couple of years later, they came up with the spectacularly dull Funaemon, an Edo-era merchant who looks like a bland accountant from a 70s British sitcom. Whichever civil servant made that disastrous decision must feel as remorseful as those publishers who rejected the manuscript for Harry Potter.
Funassyi went on to become the country’s most popular mascot, raking in billions of yen through merchandise for its creator, who is now laughing all the way to the bank. While Funassyi could have generated a fortune in revenue for Funabashi City, it seems unlikely that boring old Funaemon will enjoy the same success.
Korou-kun vs. Kikuchi-kun
The official mascot of Kumamoto’s Kikuchi City is a cute soldier named Korou-kun. He’s a perfectly serviceable mascot, but looks sadly unremarkable when standing next to his unofficial mascot rival, Kikuchi-kun.
The unique Kikuchi-kun is a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together from various points of pride from Kikuchi City (a locally-grown melon for a head, hot springs for eyebrows, a dairy cow’s legs, etc.) Although initially unpopular (he made children cry at his first public appearance) Kikuchi-kun has cultivated a cult following for his dry, deadpan comments.
Regardless of who proves to be more popular, both characters will have to endure living in the shadow of Kumamoto’s almighty Kumamon.
Hustle Komon vs. Nebaaru-kun
Ibaraki Prefecture’s official mascot is an old hustler named Hustle Komon, based on a character from the long-running Ibaraki-set period drama, Mito Komon. He faces competition from a lovable natto fairy named Nebaaru-kun. Natto is a healthy but foul-smelling food made from fermented soybeans, and originates from Ibaraki. Imitating the slimy beans, Nebaaru-kun stretches high in the air—an impressive spectacle. How can an old geezer compete with that?
Take note, mascot designers: human mascots are never popular.
Amakko-chan vs. Chicchai Ossan
I spoke too soon. One human mascot who is very popular is Chicchai Ossan, unofficial mascot of Amagasaki City, Hyogo. A balding, unshaven, middle-aged slob in a singlet, Chicchai Ossan is very relatable, thanks to his myriad imperfections.
These same imperfections no doubt led Amagaski’s government officials to look elsewhere for their official mascot. They recently chose Amakko-chan, a heart-headed girl who had been the city’s bus mascot until the service was privatized. Amakko-chan is charming, but she will have her work cut out if she wants to match Chicchai Ossan’s popularity.
Mayumaro vs. Warabi Maiko-chan
The beautiful historic prefecture of Kyoto has a surprisingly bizarre official mascot—a giant, 2000-year-old, waddling silkworm cocoon named Mayumaro. Somehow, his illegitimate rival is even weirder. Warabi Maiko-chan is a combination of a mochi dumpling and an apprentice geisha. What’s more, the costume is transparent, so you can see the performer inside.
Luckily for all these characters, the healthy competition between official and unofficial mascots never turns nasty. It is not in the nature of yuru-chara to be vindictive, so they all seem to get along just fine.
Embassy officials all over the world know the necessity of adapting to local cultures in order to grease the wheels of diplomacy. In Japan, this inevitably calls for round, furry monsters. Several foreign countries have recognized the value of creating cutesy characters to act as cultural ambassadors, representing their homelands at public events or in PR material. Many of these mascots are as adorable and weird as those of their host nation. Here are a selection:
Tom is the American embassy’s mascot. He’s a jellybean because the countless flavours of jellybeans represent the USA’s diversity.
The Finnish embassy’s mascot appears in anime videos and has 130,000 followers on Twitter. Apparently, like many westerners drawn to Japan, he’s into cosplay- he’s always wearing a lion costume.
The Israeli embassy’s adorable mascot, Shaloum-chan, is a cockatoo extending an olive branch. His name is a combination of the Israeli word for peace, “shalom”, and the Japanese word for cockatoo, “oum.” The creator clearly knows how the Japanese do mascots.
Ecuador’s odd-looking Peccary is based on a clay figure in the Bizen Latin American Museum in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture, a city for which he also acts as a mascot. Peccary is quite the crooner, and has released a CD of covers of other yuru-chara’s songs, “Peccary Sings Japanese Popular Local Mascot Songs”.
Unveiled last year, Thailand’s Muay Thaishi is a kickboxing sea-bream/ ambassador. His name is a clever amalgam of the martial art, Muay Thai, and the Japanese words for sea bream (“Tai”), and ambassador (“Taishi”).
I hope embassies keep rolling out these characters, and the trend catches on worldwide. We can achieve world peace, through the efforts of rotund, friendly mascots.
Each year a public vote is held to decide Japan’s most popular mascot. The Yuruchara Grand Prix attracts millions of votes from citizens all over the country, all rooting for their favourite characters. Last year 1,421 mascots entered the contest and the winner, with 4,345,960 votes, was Shinjou-kun, a character from Susaki City in Kochi Prefecture, based on a recently-extinct local river otter with a bowl of nabeyaki ramen on his head. (Perhaps the bowl is an example of the river pollution that led to the extinction.)
While reigning champ Shinjou-kun basks in glory, what about the characters at the other end of the scale? Spare a thought for the seven nondescript yuru-chara below, who suffered the indignity of coming in joint 1,114th (last) place. In the mascot community, this sorry bunch would get permanently swiped left on Tinder.
Better luck next year, guys!
Here are some photos from the second day of last weekend’s regional mascot event in Sumida, Tokyo. The star attraction on the second day was Funassyi, the hyperactive pear and unofficial mascot of Funabashi, Chiba. He and Kumamon never seem to appear on the same day at these events. They’re like the brothers from Oasis.
Last weekend was the annual Gotouchi-chara Festival in Sumida, Tokyo. One hundred different regional mascots gathered at three stages and a park near the base of Japan’s tallest structure, the Sky Tree. Here are some pictures from the first day of the event.
Japanese mascots are enthusiastic about all sorts of things, even underground rivers of fetid, stinking human waste. Here is a selection of my favourite regional sewage works mascots.
Earth-kun (or Ass-kun, depending on how you interpret the katakana) is a globe with a manhole cover for a hat. He’s the mascot character for the Tokyo sewage system. I don’t want to know what he does with that finger!
Suisui-kun, the mascot for the Japan Sewer Association, is a colourful chap. He is a fish with incongruous human legs, presumably for wading through excrement. Suisui-kun is a cheerful fellow, but even he has bad days from time to time:
Images of an anthropomorphic splash named Aquan adorn manhole covers in Yokosuka City, where he is a cheerleader for the local water supply and sewage system. Being enthusiastic about those sewers is no easy task- he has to deal with the floating aftermath of barracks of soldiers bingeing on Popeye’s Chicken and Pizza Hut at the city’s U.S. military base.
The kappa was once a fearsome beast of legend, instilling fear in the hearts of folk throughout Japan. Yattakun is a cutesy, infantilised shadow of that former glory. As if being de-clawed and neutered wasn’t indignity enough, Yattakun also has to spend his days worshipping rivers of poo.
Yattakun was voted the nation’s fourth best sewer mascot in 2014, a prestigious honour, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Japanese Yuru-chara can be found in the most unexpected of places. They bring joy to sporting events, schools, and tourist resorts, but they can also be spotted at less cheerful institutions. Prisons, for example. Correctional facilities looking to soften their image as grey and forbidding hell-holes sometimes adopt bright and happy mascots, more likely to give you a cuddle than shank you in the showers.
Wakayama Women’s Prison has housed many notorious inmates over the years, including Hisako Ishii – a senior member of the Aum Shinrikyo death cult; and Masumi Hayashi, who killed four people by poisoning a pot of curry at a summer festival.
The prison is also home to Waka-Pi – its adorable mascot. The “Waka” in her name comes from the prefecture, Wakayama, and “Pi” is the letter P, for “prison”. Her head is shaped like the mandarin oranges which are grown locally.
Abashiri is the most infamous prison in Japan’s history. Located in the desolate frozen wasteland of Northern Hokkaido, the maximum security facility long had a well-earned reputation for being the harshest prison in the country, as well as the most difficult to escape from. In the 1960s it inspired a series of yakuza movies starring Ken Takakuru. The original site was closed in 1984, and a new medium-security facility was opened not far from the city centre. That prison is home to Nipo-kun, a mascot modeled on a traditional toy made by the local Ainu tribes.
Katakkuri-chan is a prison warden with a giant purple flower for hair, and is the mascot of Ashikawa Prison. There are male and female incarnations of the character, both unveiled in 2013 to soften the grim and isolated image of the facility. Ashikawa has been in trouble for its harsh and inhumane treatment of inmates. One hopes Katakkuri-kun is not responsible.
While delinquent American teenagers spend their spring break partying in Cancun, the young delinquents of Japan get Nashikan-kun. He’s the mascot of the Nara Juvenile Detention Centre.
Yesterday various yuru-chara mascots from around Japan were to be found on Tokyo’s Nishi-Ginza Dori for the 11th annual Willow Festival, a festival named after the trees that line the street.
The best-known of the characters in attendance was the ubiquitous Kumamon, who soaked up most of the attention as he paraded around in a traditional robe.
Kumamon was joined by fellow bear, Arukuma, the official mascot of Nagano prefecture. He enjoys walking and has a variety of different hats.
Also at the event was the minimalistic Kitekero-kun, the “hospitalitiy section manager” of Yamagata prefecture, pictured here without his trademark rolling suitcase.
Gunma-chan and Mito-chan, pictured below, have a lot in common. They are both tiny and are named after their hometowns. Gunma-chan has been around since 1983 (since when he has evolved from a blue-maned horse into his current incarnation), and won the coveted Yuruchara Grand Prix prize in 2014. Mito-chan, of Mito City, Ibaraki, has only been around for four years and is modelled on the television period drama character, Mito Komon.